Monday, May 3, 2010

Russell Cave National Monument

Russell Cave National Monument is one of those small parks that most people have probably never heard of and will probably never visit, which is a shame.  It's tucked away in northeast Alabama, a few miles south of the Tennessee border off U.S. highway 72.  It is, as one might guess from the sign, a park with a strong Native American association.
President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order that added Russell Cave to the National Parks system in 1961.  The land was donated to the United States by the National Geographic Society.  The cave is a rich archeological site, a location that was used as for human habitation dating back to approximately 11,000 BCE.  The site is typical of many found in the southeast, a fairly large open space at the mouth of a cave system with a stream running through it.  (I was reminded immediately of Indian Rockhouse at Buffalo National River.) 

According to the park brochure, the floor of the cave mouth is about 32 feet higher now than it was when the space first start being used as a camp site.  The rock around the cave does look to be fairly unstable and no doubt spalling occurs fairly frequently.  The Park Service has attempted to stablize the cave roof, although how successful those efforts will be long-term is, of course, debatable.  
We happened to pick a particularly good day to stop at Russell Cave.  The park had a Native American days celebration scheduled (an annual event that always falls on the first weekend in May), so there were special exhibits and events going on:  demonstrations of Native American cooking and flint knapping, for example.  Kids could try their hand at archery or throwing a spear, although I didn't notice if any of the volunteers were demonstrating the use of an atlatl -- if they didn't, they should have, because there's one shown in the park sign.  

There were also several vendors with various products for sale:  traditional crafts (bead work, fingerwoven belts and scarves, medicine bags, the inevitable dream catchers) and foods (corn dogs, funnel cakes, pulled pork barbecue).     

The path to the cave is fully accessible.  There is also a short hiking trail (1.2 miles), Alabama Birding Trail #44, that is in general an easy walk up Montague Mountain.  It's more or less paved, but is not handicap accessible:  there are steps at the beginning, the pavement is narrow, and there are some steep stretches.  Due to the discovery of several rare species within the cave system, Russell Cave is not open to recreational caving.   


  1. There were some using the atlatl. It looked like instead of trying to hit the target on the hay bales, they were seeing how far they could throw the spear.


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